The 4 Best Responses to a Hurting Friend

On my way to meet a girlfriend for an afternoon tea yesterday, I turned the radio on and was immediately pulled in to the last 15 minutes of an interview on Fresh Air with Allie Brosh, the author and artist of Hyperbole and a Half.  Her honest voice talking about her very real and dark journey with depression held my attention.

The Wounded Shouldn’t Be Pressured Into Becoming the Encourager

Listening to an interview with Allie Brosh, the author of this book--based on her famous blog--moved me, especially when she shared about journey with depression.

Listening to an interview with Allie Brosh, the author of this book–based on her famous blog–moved me, especially when she shared about journey with depression.

And one statement has stuck with me.  When she was asked about why it had been so hard to reach out to her mother or husband for help during her journey, especially when she was struggling with thoughts of suicide, Allie’s answer haunted me.  Her answer was along the lines of, “Because I knew that once I told them, I’d have to deal with their emotions, and I knew I couldn’t handle that.  Seeing them get all upset, hurt, or fearful would have put me in the place of comforter; comforting them, trying to assure them that I wouldn’t kill myself, etc. I was barely able to hold my own thoughts, let alone worry about receiving theirs.” The result? Someone who was suicidal suffered in silence for far too long.

Her profound answer resonated with me because that is indeed what so often happens when we confess our hidden/dark/shameful thoughts to friends and family. Automatically, instead of the attention staying on the person sharing, the person who is hearing it is filtering it through their brain, basically trying to answer the question, “How does this information affect me?” 

Here are some examples:

  • She tells me she had a miscarriage and I feel guilty for having kids.
  • She tells me she’s been having an affair and I feel mad at her because my own family has been hurt by these types of actions.
  • She tells me she’s depressed and I feel scared or responsible for trying to fix her.
  • She tells me she’s been fired and I feel worried that our planned vacation together is going to have to be cancelled.
  • She tells me she’s going through a divorce and I feel scared for my own marriage.

It’s not selfish or malicious as much as it’s the default response we feel through much of life: “What does this mean to me and my life?” We do it with nearly every piece of information, including when we’re watching the news, and are relieved when we can say, “Oh that’s so sad… glad it doesn’t affect me” and move on.  But when it’s our friends, people we love and know, it more often than not will affect us.  It just will.  That’s the truth of being in relationship: we are connected and we impact each other.

But what maturity does for us is give us the awareness to whisper to ourselves, “Don’t make this about me right now… stay present for her.  I will process my feelings later.”  And later you should.  So this isn’t an issue about ignoring your feelings, but an issue of knowing when it’s the right time and with whom you to ought to be processing them with.  (I wrote a  relevant post to this subject that gives you a visual to remind you that it’s not the person whose story it is that should be turning around and becoming your comforter or counselor.)

The Four Best Responses to Keep the Attention on the Story-Teller

I know that my default is to try to fix, encourage, share my own stories, or any number of other things that are done with good intentions.  But I also know that in this moment– it’s less important that I feel like I fixed something and more important that she feel heard.  So my mantra is “Keep this about her.  Keep this about her.  Keep this about her.”

So all this got me thinking about sharing the four things I try to remember to do whenever someone is sharing their pain with me:

  1. Affirm:  Depending on the situation, appropriate affirmation can be as simple as “Thank you for having the courage to share that with me,” or it can be as bold as “Thank you for telling me this… I hope you know that I absolutely adore you and love you and this doesn’t change that one iota.”  But affirmation after vulnerability is so important– it reminds the revealer that their honesty was heard and valued.
  2. Ask Feeling Questions:  And then this is where we so often go awry because we usually start going into problem-solving mode (i.e. “My mom had someone who was diagnosed with that and she said that x helped her.”), encouragement mode (i.e. “No don’t feel that way!  It’s all going to be okay!), or, if we do ask questions it’s often about the story and the details that really aren’t that important (i.e. “When did the affair start?”).  When the very best thing we can do is let her keep talking and sharing about her experience.  So favorite questions of mine, include anything that asks her to keep sharing her feelings:  What did you feel when you first found out x?  What has your experience been so far?  How has this impacted your identity?  What are you most scared of?  What has been the most surprising part?  What part of it do feel like is hardest for those around you to understand? 
  3. Validate:  To validate is to “demonstrate or support the truth or value of.”  It doesn’t mean you have to support their decisions, agree with their assessment, or think you’d feel the same way in a similar circumstance.  This isn’t you voting; you’re not saying “Yes, I think you have reason to commit suicide,” or “Yes, I’m in favor of divorce.” It’s you demonstrating that you have heard them and that their feelings are valuable.  The goal then is hear their feelings (as opposed to the details/circumstances), tap into your own empathy with similar feelings, and try to say back to them what you heard them say.  It can as simple as, “I ache with you and for you. I’m so very sorry you’re going through this.” Or it can be as detailed as saying, “Your feelings are totally valid!  It makes sense that you’d feel betrayed.”
  4. Ask how you can help: And then a crucial and meaningful step is to ask, “How can I best support you right now?”  If it’s someone you know well, you can offer as much as you’re comfortable extending: “How can I best support you right now? If you could ask for anything, what comes to mind?  Do you need tangible things like rides to the hospital or a place to stay?  Do you need me to call you regularly during this time?  I know it’s hard to ask for detailed help… but I’d so appreciate you telling me what I can do that will be the most meaningful to you if you ever know it.  I want to journey this with you.”

As always, I cherish hearing your feedback, your own stories, what part spoke you, or advice on this subject that you want to share with others.

Other relevant posts:

How To Respond to a Friend in Crisis

9 Principles for Responding to a Friend in an Affair


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14 Responses to The 4 Best Responses to a Hurting Friend

  1. Jeanette says:

    I agree with much of what you shared. The only point you made that I disagree with is asking for details about how to help. I have had surgeries, been through a divorce, recovered from a major car accident and whenever someone asked what I needed, I had no idea. What I find has worked best is to offer suggestions. For example “may I start a website so your friends can bring you meals?” I would like to help by taking you to the hospital, would you like that or would you prefer to have your husband take you”. Offering both a concrete idea and the option of saying no is easier for most people to accept.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Excellent addition! I agree whole-heartedly! I had one friend buy me a package of massages to help give me healthy touch in my life after my divorce– I would have NEVER thought of that nor asked for it. I am speaking mostly to when we are just finding out about something… so probably before the person listening even knows what to offer yet… so I think it’s still always good to ask, showing that we don’t know and we’re open to anything they think of. And then, your beautiful suggestion is the best way to follow-up if it doesn’t come automatically in that first conversation!

      • Angelic says:

        “How can I help?” or “What do you need?” are great phrases for the person who can’t think of what to say to a friend. It may not be as good as offering something specific, but it’s a reminder to not say anything that’s wrong.

        Jeanette’s suggestion is perfect for after you’ve processed the news yourself.

  2. Stephanie-t says:

    I also have to say I do agree with a lot of what you said in this post. And the reason I said that has to do with back in 1993, I was going through a very traumatic time with a relationship that went bust. And I do see that is what our family and friends do tend to do, is to try to turn things in to how it affects them. And the reason I do say that, is because when my relationship fell apart, and I told my mom she and my biological father turned it in to being about them. So I would also add too this by saying, please do not do this an especially so with telling the person who is hurting that you and your significant other had to go to therapy to understand how they could raise a child who could not hold a relationship.

    As when my biological mother told me, that is what she and her husband did it put me in a place where I had to ask how my relationship problems affected them. And I have to say I found this to be very un-benifical with providing me the help I needed to come out of the depression I was in.

    I also have to say, that there again by the same token please do not tell someone that is hurting over a relationship break up that they need to move on. This also is very un supportive with helping them. What I found helped me most, when significant other who was also another girl was to provide a more supportive atmosphere. Which was by telling me to take time, and to focus on myself and dealing with the relationship break up. As well as that not to focus on getting in to another relationship, and not to look for one as when it was time for me to have another relationship that it would find me.

    But I also have to say, that there was no benefit in my mother telling me, that her and my father seeking therapy because of my failed relationship other to give them comfort. And that to make me feel that much more of a failure, and to keep me in a place of depression so I would become co-dependent on her and him.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Stephanie– SO sorry for the exasperated pain that you went through– losing a relationship is hard enough, but becomes such a greater loss when it impacts all our others. My heart aches for you.

      And thank you for offering up to all of us what wasn’t helpful to hear… we’ve all been guilty of saying similar things in our desire to make someone feel better, forgetting it isn’t our job to make them feel anything! Our job is to simply hear what they are feeling! I wish you had had someone do that for you!

      With that said, I also want to be clear that I’m not saying that our pain does hurt others or impact them. It does. It very much does. We can’t have our friends or family going through divorce, having affairs, struggling with depression, being diagnosed with cancer, or declaring bankruptcy without it touching us. Everyone around you had to process the loss– they were losing someone,too. We’re all connected– we’re a part of a system– so when one of us hurts, we all hurt. I applaud your parents for going to counseling and finding the appropriate way for them to process it. I wish, in their own pain, that they hadn’t had to add guilt to you or insult you and your adult decisions in their telling to you of their process. I’m so sorry for that!

      I hope that now, ten years later, you have found forgiveness, love, and peace with yourself, your parents, and any others you have chosen to love.

  3. Nancy Hynes says:

    Moments ago I talked to a father and daughter facing a crisis. Just as Jeanette said, they have no idea what is needed, though people are asking what they can do. I just offered to go to their home and talk it through and come up with a list of helpful ideas. I intend to take a notebook I can leave with my friends. I expect I will choose a green cover to signify a workable solution or blue cover for “calm.” Jeanette, the idea of a website so people will know when to bring meals is such a good idea. I am so not a techie. How is this done? Thank you, Shasta & Jeanette, for you thoughts and ideas. They are timely, and I know I will incorporate your thoughts into future responses to friends.

  4. Mari Anoran says:

    An excellent article. I completely understand Allie Brosh’s feelings…I stayed in a 25 year marriage because we were considered the “golden couple” and no one wanted to hear how unhappy I was. When I did finally leave and file for divorce, I was shocked at the fall-out. Most of our former “couple’ friends avoided or disowned me. Luckily I had a handful of close friends that followed the above advice and were totally supportive by really listening and caring for me in tangible ways (ie: calling me daily, cooking/treating me to meals, etc.). Now I know how to be a better friend!

  5. Peggy says:

    Excellent article…thank you!

  6. MEL says:

    I went through a terrible suicidal depression in 1995. Most people seem to have NO earthly idea how to deal with someone that has that situtation. I got comments from “Focus on others. Others (satraving orphans in Africa, kids with cancer, the homeless, whoever..etc.have much worse problems than you and your selfish dwelling on your own problems will only make them worse.” “If you were in the right place with the Lord you would not have depression.” “Your depression is making me depressed.” “You are not dwelling in the Light.” Not one person offered to help me in anyway or even asked how they could help. Noone even offered me an ear or a shoulder to cry on. Needless to say, these reactions deepened my anxiety. Thank God I had a wonderful therapist and was able to get medication and thus recover.

  7. Angelic says:

    I think this article is really so helpful because people really DO want to be helpful, but feel lost. Words are powerful, and a little guidance (especially during our most stressful times) goes a long way!

  8. This is helpful article but I think it would be good to take it and address the next level of subtlety regarding the hierarchy of relationships. With a friend, the processing can happen later b/c there IS a later. With a partner (and to some extent with a parent or child) there sometimes IS no later—depression, in particular is chronic, and at some point the the partner (or parent or child) is going to have to express *their* stress, including its connection to the “subjects” stress. Sometimes both people, especially partners, are depressed, and the depression is of a piece–there is no way to talk about it honestly with each other than to acknowledge that one person’s feeling directly impacts the other’s. This is why *friends* with *distance* are so valuable, and why counseling from professional therapists is also so valuable. And that’s why one of the most loving, brave, awesome things a depressed person can do for their family is get help from someone outside their household.

  9. Nancy Hacker says:

    I’m adding the link to Ally’s “Depression Part 2,” illustrating how people with very good intentions can sometimes not be so helpful. Cute and funny, like the rest of the new book: